England cricket team number 1 in the world: how?

The England cricket team beat India comprehensively on 13 August for the third time in three matches and has now taken over top spot in the official world rankings for the five day format of the game. Long-suffering England fans should rejoice and be thankful for central contracts.

Throughout sporting history, world-leading teams have needed a combination of talented players in form, good leadership and coaching, a harmonious team dynamic and some luck. In more recent years funding and scientific back-up have also become crucial elements. The England team has had all of these but the institution of central contracts for leading players in 2000 arguably made it all possible.

Humiliation has been a fairly regular experience for England cricket fans since 1882, when when Australia beat England at home for the first time and a mock obituary of English cricket was published in a newspaper called The Sporting Times.

Matthew Engel summed it up this weekend in the Financial Times, writing that English cricket has generally been “a standing national joke to rank alongside the weather and the railways”.

One of the low points was 1999 when England was ranked last among the nine test match playing nations. In the following year the newly appointed coach Duncan Fletcher successfully made the case for the governing body, the England and Wales Cricket Board to contract a squad of leading players directly. This took power away from the county sides who had previously been the main employers.

It was a vital step because it enabled the ECB much greater control over the development of players. Central contracts are significant for numerous reasons:

- The ECB can decide how often and in what matches cricketers play (important for reducing the risk of injury and ensuring players are ready for big matches)
- Incentive for players (few cricketers are rich by global sporting standards but a central contract is fairly lucrative)
- More training time together as a squad (which also helps attract the best coaches)
- Consistent selection (if you have contracted a group of players who have to be paid then the selectors are inclined to stick with them for longer)
- Sports science and medicine investment (it’s worth keeping centrally contracted players fit rather than just picking the next in line every time there is an injury. There is also now a very scientific approach to video analysis of technique and statistical analysis to determine tactics)
- More control over sponsorship (squad players have contractual commitments to sponsors, which increases the appeal of rights packages)

England’s recent success owes much to a talented crop of players with good management, leadership and coaching but of course the weakness of other teams has contributed: the Indian team had inadequate preparation before this current series and years of Australian dominance came to an end when several all-time greats retired in a short space of time.

The current England squad has strengh in depth and could stay at the top of their game for some time but their competitors will be looking to catch up. It surely won’t be long before the approach to sports science and medicine is adopted by other teams.

As it happens, central contracts in their current form are now under threat due to the success of the Indian Premier League. England fans would be well advised to enjoy the success while it lasts.

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